Hanuman had the task of finding Seeta who had been kidnapped by Ravana. He was flying over the ocean.  Suddenly, he felt as if somebody was holding him back.

When he looked down, he saw a demon  who appeared to be capturing his shadow.  Hanuman remembered Sugreeva telling him that her name was Simhika and she could capture a person’s shadow and make her victim immobile.

Hanuman quickly came down to the ocean and destroyed her before she could gobble up his shadow!

This is a story from the epic poem, Ramayana, which was written by Maharshi Valmiki.  Ramayana is considered the ‘Adi Kavya’ or the first literary work of India.  It is said to be at least 5,000 years old.  So, in India we’ve had fascinating stories about shadows for centuries.  ‘Chayanataka’ or shadow theatre finds mention in India in literature from the second century!

In many parts of Karnataka and other states of South India, a whole world of stories is being recreated using shadow puppetry.  Shadow puppet shows sometimes go on all night during important festivals and celebrations in villages and temples.  The most popular stories are from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.  There is a large community of people called ‘killekyathas’ in Karnataka who make shadow puppets and stage performances.

Art and craft
The shadow puppets of the ‘killekyathas’ are usually made of leather.  The leather, from goats, is washed, scrubbed and cleaned and the puppet shapes are carefully cut out. Design details are made on the cut-outs. Holes are punched on these designs so that light can pass through them. The puppet is coloured using different types of ink.

In the past, ‘killekyathas’ used colours which were obtained from natural sources like vegetables, flowers and minerals.  Red, black white and yellow are the traditional colours that they used. After dyeing or colouring, a thin bamboo stick is stitched on to the puppet.  The puppet is now ready to dance, educate and entertain.

The screen is typically a white sheet of cloth, which is tightly stretched.  The puppeteers stand behind the screen.  The source of light is placed in the centre behind the screen in such a way that only the shadow of the puppet, and not the player, is seen.

The show begins with a prayer to Ganesha.  The orchestra consists of the singer who is called ‘bhagavathar’, the percussionist who plays the ‘maddale’ or ‘dolu’, and the person who plays a wind instrument called ‘mukhaveena’.  The harmonium is used to maintain the pitch of the singer.

Mind-boggling variety
Shadow puppets come in many sizes and shapes.  They can be as small as six inches or as large as eight feet! There can be puppets depicting individual characters or a whole scene.

Most puppets are cut out from profile drawings so that they appear as if they are looking at each other when they perform on stage. Did you know that the shadow puppets of Karnataka have both their eyes drawn on the same side of their profile?

Shadow puppetry is called ‘togalubombe aata’ in Karnataka, ‘tolubommalata’ in Andhra Pradesh, ‘tolupavakottu’ in Kerala, ‘tolpavakottu’ in Tamil Nadu, and ‘Ravanachayya’ in Odisha.  Born in ancient India, it later made its way to Indonesia and Cambodia.

(The writer is an award-winning puppeteer and founder of ‘Dhaatu’, a research centre on folk art and puppet studies in Bangalore.)